7(3), August 1990, pages 81-88

Computers and Student Writing:
Maiming the Macintosh (A Response)

Steven Youra

In "Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message?" Marcia Peoples Halio (1990) claims that students who use IBM computers write better papers than those who use Macintosh. She attributes this finding to differences in the design and operating systems of the two machines. The author contends that the command-driven IBM inculcates close attention to verbal correctness, whereas the graphics-oriented Macintosh entices students to focus on the appearance rather than the substance of their written work. But the article is flawed by a poor experimental design and is filled with questionable logic and evidence. In the service of a provocative thesis, the author's criticisms reflect a limited understanding of the Macintosh. The discussion also overlooks many specific features that actually make the Macintosh a valuable tool for teaching writing. Furthermore, the conclusions of ". . . Maim the Message?" are undermined by an analysis curiously divorced from any mention of teaching.

In what follows, I will not prove that for writing instruction the Macintosh is superior to the IBM, although I suspect that it is. I do intend to describe the flaws in Halio's study and to explain why the Mac is actually very useful for writing instruction. Whatever the particular merits of IBM or Macintosh (and despite what ". . . Maim the Message" implies), no computer by itself can teach writing. But a word-processing program is a significant resource, especially when the instructor encourages students to develop composing practices adapted to the particular features and constraints of the hardware and software they use.

Questionable Science

Whether or not Halio's contentions are valid, the poor design of her study undermines its conclusions. For example:


Even if the purported distinctions between Mac and IBM writers were based on more reliable evidence, Halio's interpretations and reasoning would still be suspect. The article suggests that there is something fundamentally childish about the Macintosh, its users, and their writing (p. 18). The author's central point is that students view the Macintosh as a toy, and therefore when they write with it, their language is less formal than that of IBM users, who associate their machine with high seriousness. But if students do not associate the Macintosh with "three-piece suits" (p. 19), then so much the better. Too frequently students view writing as deadly serious business; and their language is as often too stilted or lofty or awkwardly formal as it is too colloquial. A sense of play can impel students to experiment with their emerging texts, to cut and paste zealously, and to try out new phrasings.

The Macintosh may simplify such playful verbal activity. My students who write with a Mac (especially those for whom writing is usually a threatening experience) usually enjoy using the machine. With that pleasure, I'd argue, many also come to enjoy the act of writing and to spend more time on it.

The author mistakenly links the simplicity of the Mac to simple-mindedness. "I wonder: Can a technology be too easy, too playful for young, immature writers to use? Can such a technology arrest their writing at a less mature stage of development?" (p. 19). I would ask in return, "Can't undeveloped writing mature especially with a teacher's assistance?" If the Mac evokes looser expression than does the IBM, then this supposed disadvantage actually presents writing instructors with an opportunity. Teachers might do well to encourage chatty writing--not as a final stage, but as an important beginning, especially for students who feel insecure, or blocked, or blank. Current theories of writing pedagogy support such an approach, especially when it is followed by an ongoing recursive process of drafting and revising, a process (I would add) that the Macintosh may incite (Gebhardt, 1983; Sommers, 1980). I have found that precisely because it is so easy to use, the Mac can support the early stages of the writing process, when the most important goal is to get something out onto paper (or onto the screen) that can subsequently be reformulated and edited. A student can be asked to revise a conversational text through a series of drafts into a more polished and coherent essay. If Mac students at Delaware "fail to get to the more formal level" (p. 19), then perhaps the teachers and not the computers are to blame. In fact, ". . . the Message?" acknowledges that the Mac is "well suited to the pre-writing stages of composition." But by omitting any discussion of teaching (i.e., the process of instruction, commentary, discussion, and analysis that would help students guide their proto-essay into something more sophisticated) Halio fails to prove her claim that the Mac is "less well suited to the later stages of composition" (p. 19).

Other drawbacks that Halio attributes to the Macintosh are also really teaching problems. For example, the author derides the topics on which her Mac students chose to write. I would contend that essays on graffiti or the eating habits of Americans (her examples) can be as perceptive, well-argued, and thought-provoking as papers on the more "important" topics of capital punishment, teen pregnancy and nuclear war (p. 17). In fact, the more profound subjects often elicit tired clichés from students who often feel incapable of saying anything new about these overworked topics, whereas unusual subjects can surprise students into independent thinking and argument. The difference, finally, is not in the topic, but in the quality of analysis and expression. In a course that requires students to produce drafts for the instructor's criticisms or for peer-editing sessions, the teacher and fellow students can help the writer to shape a collection of roughly phrased notions and undeveloped thoughts into a coherent, well-argued essay.

If students are submitting drawings along with their writing, as the article laments (pp. 17-18), then the instructors simply need to establish clear ground rules about what is and is not acceptable. If essays from the Mac are indeed "very creatively illustrated" (p. 17), then perhaps Halio and her colleagues should teach document design in their classes. As I have discovered by instructing courses in professional communications, graphics can be taught in relation to (and not as a deflection from) good writing principles. In fact, decisions about matters of visual display--layout, headings, spacing, font size and style, captions, and so forth--require students to make important judgments about the organization, hierarchy, and logic of their thoughts and language.


". . . Maim the Message?" is filled with misconceptions about the Macintosh. Apparently, the author has had scant experience with the Mac, because she ignores some of the features that suit the Macintosh to writing instruction. The article claims that the Mac's large print and big margins encourage simple sentences and childish vocabulary; but in fact, the Apple simply puts character size in the writer's control. Macintosh's fonts are not inherently larger than IBM's, but the Mac allows the writer to expand or shrink font size with ease. (Extending Halio's reasoning about size, one could claim that the larger IBM monitor must remind students of a TV set!) The article also complains that word-oriented users (in contrast to the visually minded) are burdened because they must "translate" the Macintosh's graphic icons (p. 45). But in fact, all Mac files are titled and can be viewed by name, and all operations can be controlled by verbal commands. Halio worries that the mouse might hinder the learning disabled or handicapped user (p. 45). But some handicapped writers might find the mouse easier to manipulate than the keyboard. And most Mac programs are flexible: If users prefer, they can choose to substitute keystrokes for mouse actions, and they can engage a "sticky keys" feature specifically designed to accommodate the manually disabled.

The article also overlooks several Macintosh capabilities that help a writer to compose and that enhance the teaching of writing as a process. For example,

Perhaps the IBM developers recognize these Macintosh advantages, because the new IBM machines and recent DOS software try to emulate such features previously associated only with the Mac. Of course, in order for students to benefit from these Macintosh features, the teacher should demonstrate them and then regularly encourage their use.

(Teaching) Writing With A Computer

In the context of criticizing the Macintosh, Halio's essay raises several important problems that arise from using computers to teach writing--problems that have little to do with the Mac per se. Yet they are couched as Macintosh deficiencies. Those who teach writing with any sort of computer must develop teaching strategies to overcome such difficulties. For example, Halio complains that the neat appearance of laser-printed papers can fool writers into thinking that the content is as elegant as the font. Point granted. But of course, this problem is not limited to the Macintosh. Laser-print from the IBM looks just as good, and in either case, student writers must be shown that polished appearance is not equivalent to polished content. Because laser print looks too elegant to tamper with, teachers should encourage students to produce early versions in a draft-quality print that invites intervention. Laser quality should be reserved for the finished product, after all of the editing has been done.

Other teaching/writing strategies should address other constraints on writing that are imposed by the computer--any computer, Mac or IBM. For example, screen size is always a limiting factor, especially when revising for organization and consistency. (The standard Macintosh screen is smaller than the IBM's, but the Mac's resolution is better.) Confined to viewing a page or less at one time, the writer can miss a sense of the whole, and of the relationships between individual parts of an essay or report. To compensate, the teacher should urge students to move back and forth between versions of the text on the screen and printed page. A student leafing through hard copy can gain a clear impression of the entire document, its organization, and the relationships among its parts. The writer can mark on the paper changes at all levels; feed these revisions back onto the screen; and print a new draft for further review. In this manner, the writer can effectively adapt the word-processing program to the process of writing. Unfortunately, without guidance, students usually work the other way around: They only edit text displayed on the monitor, at best revising punctuation or phrasing, but seldom dealing with larger matters. In this, as in other areas, the teacher can suggest procedures for composing with a computer. (For an intelligent discussion of computers and writing instruction, see Stuart Davis, 1988, The Ragged Interface: Computers and the Teaching of Writing.)

Contrary to Marcia Peoples Halio's claims, the Macintosh is a very effective tool for writing instruction, especially when students are shown how to use it. Of course, any computer should be incorporated into a teaching strategy that treats the computer as something more than just a nifty typewriter. Many of my own students have improved their writing by exploiting the specific features of the Macintosh . Other composition teachers in a variety of writing programs are enthusiastic about the Mac. As the director of one such program, and as coordinator of various writing courses, from introduction to film to senior technical communications, I have heard many colleagues praise the Macintosh and have encountered no criticisms resembling those expressed in Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message. Perhaps, in her zeal to maim the Macintosh, Ms. Halio has, in fact, mangled the message.

Steven Youra is the Director of the Engineering communications program at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.


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